The Doors: Strange Days… Again

The man who orchestrated the Doors’ dark cabaret reflects on Jim Morrison, Echo & the Bunnymen and life as a solo artist.

You run into him at music biz parties. You’ll see him sitting in with Echo & the Bunnymen when they gig in Los Angeles, or playing piano for a poetry reading at McCabe’s or the Roxy. Spend enough time around the L.A. rock scene and you’re sure to spot Ray Manzarek’s towering, lanky frame or catch a glint from the trademark wire-rim glasses that soften his angular, Slavic features. The guy gets around. Unlike other Sixties icons, the former Doors keyboardist refuses to fade into history-book obscurity or pass into complacent dotage. He’s still exploring the vital connections between music, poetry and “dangerous” ideologies—much as he did with the Doors. But the explorations are always in a present-tense context, as when Ray produced X’s seminal punk debut, Los Angeles, and the two albums that followed it. More recently, the same concerns have led Manzarek into collaborations with poets Michael C. Ford and Michael McClure, the latter an old friend of Jim Morrison.

You run into him at music biz parties. You’ll see him sitting in with Echo and the Bunnymen when they gig in Los Angeles. Or playing piano for a poetry reading at McCabe’s or the Roxy. Spend enough time around the L.A. rock scene and you’re sure to spot Ray Manzarek’s towering, lanky frame or catch a glint from the trademark wire-rim glasses that soften his angular, Slavic features.

The guy gets around.

Unlike other sixties icons, the former Doors keyboardist refuses to fade into history- book obscurity or pass into complacent dotage. He’s still exploring the vital connections between music, poetry and “dangerous” ideologies—mush as he did with the Doors. But the explorations are always in a present-tense context, as when Ray produced X’s seminal punk debut, Los Angeles, and the two albums that followed it. More recently, the same concerns have led Manzarek into collaborations with poets Michael C. Ford and Michael McClure, the latter an old friend of Jim Morrison.

Manzarek’s own recorded output in the years since the Doors’ demise has been sporadic, varied and generally pretty interesting. He recorded two solo albums in the mid Seventies: The Gold Scarab and The Whole Thing Started with Rock and Roll; Now It’s Out of Control. These were followed by two more albums with a group Ray formed called Nite City. 1983 saw the release of another thought-provoking collaboration: a jazz-rock arrangement of Carmina Burana—a 1935 cantata based on some medieval poems—which Manzarek recorded with the help of composer Philip Glass. Right now, Ray and his 14-year-old son Pablo are recording an album of electronic instrumental music.

Along the way, Manzarek has acted as a sort of curator to the Doors’ legacy, producing and directing video packages like Dance on Fire and Live at the Hollywood Bowl, and releasing An American Prayer, a posthumous album of Jim Morrison’s poetry. But, much to his credit, he has always treated this legacy as an ongoing, living thing, rather than a moment of history, frozen forever in the dead past. This comes across when you talk to him about the Doors. His answers to questions are like Joycean monologues mingling past, present and future events in a single stream of associative awareness. These monologues unfold in rhythmic, ritualistic cadences, as Ray’s resonant bass voice re-enacts some of the scenes—weird and otherwise—that he’s witnessed inside, or outside of, the goldmine.

MODERN KEYBOARD For me, there have always been two hallmarks of the Ray Manzarek keyboard style. One is parallel thirds in minor scales, as in the “People Are Strange” solo, and the other is the way you resolve flatted fifths—in “Back Door Man,” for example. The latter is a pretty standard blues move, but you have a certain unique way of doing it. Any thoughts on the origins of either of those characteristics?

RAY MANZAREK Yeah. Russian classical music. Stravinsky. Slavic roots. Growing up in Chicago. The sense of minor, maudlin, modal…hmm…minor, maudlin, modal…

MK Can you get another M in there?

MANZAREK Yeah. Manzarek. That’s what I do. That’s where the minor thirds all come from. That and Miles Davis. And, of course, the blues. Growing up in Chicago, which is the home of the blues: Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reid, John Lee Hooker, all of those guys. I used to hear that on the radio in Chicago. There were stations where you could actually hear the blues on the radio. Of course, this was in the Fifties.

The first time I heard Elvis Presley was on a black station. One of those stations playing the blues. They didn’t know he was a white guy. The first song I heard was “Mystery Train.” The DJ, a guy named Al Benson, couldn’t get his mouth around the words “Elvis Presley.” He said [affecting a Southern drawl], “And here’s a new song by Elvin Priestly.” That’s what I think he finally got out: Elvin Priestly. That song was unlike anything I’d heard on that station. Here was another kind of minor sound with a very fast tempo to it. A country flavor. It was kind of like a country blues with a strange, clean, high voice. I thought, This is a very unusual guy. And, lo and behold, it turns out to be Elvis Presley. The first time I saw him, I put the two together. “My God, that guy who does ‘Mystery Train’ is not black after all. He’s not old. He’s actually a young white man.”

So at that point, I knew that there were other people into black music like I was into it. ’Cause it was not popular back then for white people to be listening to Muddy Waters and whatnot. Nor was it popular to be listening to jazz. Miles Davis and John Coltrane were very, very big influences. Also a couple of piano players in Chicago. Ahmad Jamal, a jazz piano player—very tasty piano player— very simple, almost like Erik Satie…classical. Ramsey Lewis and Les McCann. He’s from California, but I heard funky Les McCann in Chicago. So those were jazz influences. Bill Evans, of course, was a great influence on me. His Debussy style of playing.

I studied classical piano too. Never really liked it. But I studied it, so I learned how to read and how to get my chops together. Basically Russian classical was the big influence there. Dimitri Kabalevsky was very important. Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky, too. You know.

MK So, instead of music, you studied economics and film academically?

MANZAREK Yeah. I went to DePaul University in Chicago. I got a bachelor’s degree in economics, thinking that trying to make a career out of music would be ridiculous. Then I came to California and went to the UCLA film school, where I met Jim Morrison. We both graduated from UCLA—major in film. And two or three months after we graduated, we decided to put the Doors together. There’s that famous story of Jim and Ray meeting on the beach in Venice. It was the summer. I was sitting there not knowing what I was going to do with my life. Jim came walking along. We started talking and he’d been writing some songs, which surprised me. ’Cause I knew he was a poet, but he had never written songs before. So I said, “Sit down here, sing a song to me.” So he sat down on the beach…around 1:00 in the afternoon, blazing sun, July on the Southern California beach in Venice. Jim Morrison is sitting next to me singing “Moonlight Drive.” And it just killed me, man. Blew my mind. The lyrics were so haunting. Spooky. The tone of his voice had that whole bluesy, Russian, Elvis Presley “Mystery Train” thing… there it all was in a white guy sitting right next to me. Everything I had grown up with. Everything I just talked about. Jim Morrison encapsulated that kind of atmosphere. And my fingers started moving. I could just hear the things that I could do on the keyboards around his vocals.

MK Was it by choice or by chance that the Doors didn’t have a bass player?

MANZAREK We tried to use a bass player. We knew we had to have a bass. It was too thin without a bass. We auditioned two bass players, and both times we wound up sounding like the Rolling Stones. It turned into sort of a blues jam. The sound got cluttered. The bass players would invariably play too much. No bass player would want to play the way I played keyboard bass. It was just too hypnotic. The same thing over and over. Like “Light My Fire.” The whole solo on “Light My Fire” is practically the same bass line. An A minor third to a B minor third. Back and forth. But if you’re soloing with your right had, that’s fine. Your left hand is just—in a way—keeping a rhythm. But for a bass player to do that would have been horrible.

So we went along to an audition and the other band had a Vox Continental, just like I had. But there—sitting on top of the Vox Continental of this slick sort of Paul Revere and the Raiders kind of band—was that Fender Rhodes piano bass. I switched on the amplifier, played the thing and realized that it was a keyboard bass. [Sings bass riff to “Light My Fire.”] I said, “Oh my God, this is it. Eureka! We have found our bass player. John, Robby, Jim, I would like to introduce you to our bass player: my left hand and his friend the Fender Rhodes Keyboard Bass. We’ve got to get one of these.” So we did and that was it.

MK As a keyboardist, did you find it restrictive at first to devote your left hand to playing the bass?

MANZAREK Not really. ’Cause I always thought of it as an outgrowth of boogie woogie. Or there was a jazz guy in the Forties that I heard records by: a guy named Lenny Tristano who had an amazing left hand. He would never use a bass player because his left hand was just going like gang busters. Also, playing an organ… The sustain of the organ that I played, a Vox Continental, didn’t need more than four notes. Rarely would I ever play a five-note chord. So playing the organ, my left hand would have been scratching my nose, cleaning my glasses or something.

MK Playing the tambourine…

MANZAREK Actually I did…before we got the piano bass. Sometimes when we would play “The End,” I would play the flute. I would play down low on the organ and play a flute with my left hand. ’Cause I had nothing to do, my left hand was superfluous. So when the keyboard bass came along, it wasn’t superfluous.

And it put me in perfect sync with John. We became the rhythm section. I didn’t have to go through a bass player to get to John. He didn’t have to go through a bass player to get to me. The secret of the Doors is that kind of energy. An energy between me and John. Between John and Robby. Between John and Jim.

We would hit something onstage every once in a while that was absolute magic, transcendental magic. And the audiences would get caught up in that wave of energy that we were creating. That’s what the Sixties were all about. Transcendence. Spiritual transcendence. Physical joy. A feeling of belonging on the planet, security on the planet, that people don’t have today. We were so secure that nothing, nothing could hurt us. An atomic bomb could blow up. We’d die. But our energy could carry on. We weren’t even afraid, necessarily, of dying. We didn’t want to die. But we had transcended the fear of death. And man, what a feeling.

Hopefully it will happen again, you know. Maybe an awareness will start to develop in America in which we become more politically conscious. More ecologically conscious. First we have to clean up the environment. Stop the greed. Greed is very bad. Stop manipulating the stock market. Make a decent product. Allow the young people of America to have goals. Allow them to have hope in the future, that we can change the world and make the world a better place for singing, dancing and having a good time in general.

MK Who knows if rock music can ever be a vehicle for that again?

MANZAREK Well, rhythm will. It has to be. What happened to white America is that white America discovered the black man. And so we’re all white on the outside—those of us who are white—but we’re all black on the inside. Africa has invaded our souls. That’s why we got to have that beat. We got to have that rock and roll. That’s basically black Africa. That’s where that comes from. The two and four rather than the emphasis on one and three. That’s where the power is. The power of the snake. Sexual power. And the Judeo-Christian-Muslim religions tried to stop that beat of two and four and put you back on one and three.

MK Okay, so there was this improvisational thing happening among the members of the Doors. You and Robby played the only tonal instruments. And that became the basis for studio recordings?

MANZAREK Exactly. We worked it out in person. When it came time to record the first album, we had enough material for two albums. We had three long epics, as we called them: “Light My Fire,” “The End” and “When the Music’s Over.” We said, “Well, we can’t do all three of those. What will we do?” And [producer] Paul Rothchild said, “We’ve got to do ‘Light My Fire.’ ” I forget how we decided to do “The End” as the other song. We also had “People Are Strange” and quite a few songs that we put on the second album.

The first album was four-track. The second album was eight-track. So the first album was basically the way we played live. On the second album, Strange Days, we actually got to manipulate the recording studio. Four extra tracks to play with. So we did overdubs. I played marimba. I played a backward piano. Put the tape on backward and played the entire song backward. Wrote all the chord changes out. Started on the lower right-hand side of the chart rather than the upper lefthand side, and read backward as the song progressed. And it worked. As it ended, I was thinking, God, I hope I’m going to end when the song ends. Or when the song begins. And sure enough, the last beat came and—bonk— there I was with the beginning of the song.

MK That was “You’re Lost, Little Girl,” right?

MANZAREK Yes. Then when I thought about it I said, “This is insane. Why would anyone even do this?” Except we have eight tracks, so you know…we brought in a Moog synthesizer on the song “Strange Days.” Also on “Spanish Caravan” [from Waiting for the Sun] you can hear strange Moog tunes.

MK Was that your first encounter with synths?

MANZAREK Oh yeah. That was it. A guy named Paul Beaver came by with this incredible array of dials and knobs and switches. It wasn’t anything like keyboards today.

MK It was an early modular system.

MANZAREK Exactly. It was very impressive. Early synthesizer players were quite unusual in that they could never get back to something that you liked. They were constantly turning dials and moving things around. You said, “ I like that. Can you go to that?” And he’d say, “Well, wait a minute, let me try something a little bit more…see if you like this.” You had to say, “No, no, no, I like the other thing that you had.” And they could never get back to it. You had to get something and say, “Stop. Will you now?”

MK So the Moog produced the seagull sounds on “Strange Days”?

MANZAREK Right.

MK And a riff too, I think.

MANZAREK No, I played behind Jim’s vocal. Listen to Jim’s vocal on “Strange Days.” The Moog synthesizer is playing with [sings] “strange days have found us.” You will hear a weirdly bubbling kind of thing. Then, on “Spanish Caravan,” you can hear a strange electronic wind sound. That was a lot of fun to record. Eight tracks were just heavenly.

MK A lot of the piano parts sound like prepared piano.

MANZAREK Don’t they? Right. Sunset Sound, where we recorded, had a delicious tack piano. Each hammer had a little tack in it. So when the hammer hit the string, the tack would hit the string before the hammer, to give it that kind of ring. And it was an old piano, so it had that John Cage kind of prepared piano sound. And [engineer] Bruce Botnick would mike it in different ways. I don’t know what mics he was using. Didn’t really know at the time anyway. And depending on the EQ setting and the mics, you would get different effects out of it.

MK Some of it sounds like wax paper piano. Did you ever do that?

MANZAREK Yeah we did, actually. We put some wax paper behind the strings. So that the tack would hit normally, but then the string would vibrate against a sheet of wax paper. That’s good that you caught that.

MK Would it be possible to establish a chronology of the different portable organs that you used with the Doors?

MANZAREK The very first piano, or the first electric keyboard, I used was a Wurlitzer. We didn’t really play a lot of gigs with it, so it didn’t really count. Then we got a deal with Columbia Records; and Columbia owned Vox. Billy James [the Columbia A&R man who, in 1966, signed the Doors to a contract that ultimately produced no records] said, “Do you guys need any equipment?” We said, “Oh God, yes.” [laughs] He said, “We own Vox.” I said, “Vox…VOX. Oh my God, I can get a Vox organ like the Dave Clark Five. Yes I need an organ.” So we went out to Vox and I got an organ and an amp. I couldn’t believe it. It was free.

I played a Vox Continental for the first half of the Doors’ career. Until Columbia sold Vox to an Italian company. Vox was an English firm originally. And the Italian Vox Continentals just didn’t hold up. They started falling apart. Even the old ones I used to have to replace every six months. I would break them just by playing too hard. The keys would start to stick and I would fuse everything. So I’d have to throw it out, get a new one. Once every six months wasn’t bad. But once Vox was sold to the Italians, it was like once a month, once every other week.

I said, “Well that’s it. I can’t use these anymore. I’ve got to get something else. What else is there?” There was the Farfisa and there was the Gibson Kalamazoo. Now I would have gotten the Farfisa, except the top was rounded and I couldn’t put the Fender Rhodes bass on it. I needed something with a flat top. And the Gibson Kalamazoo was the only one that had a flat top. So that’s what I used—a Kalamazoo—for the rest of the time. They don’t make those anymore. They were rare and very interesting.

It was the first keyboard to have pitchbender on it—a pedal. So you could actually bend down a half step. And I use that to great effect—if I do say so myself—on “Not to Touch the Earth.” Paul Rothchild played the pedal. I couldn’t move my foot sideways on it to get the right rhythm. So Paul was kneeling down on the floor next to me as I was playing, bending this little thing that stuck up off the volume pedal. Also on “The Unknown Soldier,” I had the sustain and the pitch-bend. I had a piano stop with a sustain on it and then bent the pitch.

MK So it was those two organs.

MANZAREK Yes. And right at the end of the last album I finally got a Hammond organ. John and Jim and Robby, for Christmas, they said, “We’re getting you a Hammond organ.” And in comes this huge church organ. We had it cut down. All the guts were taken out of it. And the tubes were taken out. It was transistorized. So for about six months, I used a cut-down Hammond Organ.

MK Was it a B-3? A C-3?

MANZAREK A C-3. And I also used a Fender Rhodes around that time—on “Riders on the Storm.” I used a Wurlitzer on “Queen of the Highway.” Lots of grand piano—that was all in the recording studio. And harpsichord on “Love Me Two Times” and the opening of “Soft Parade.” I’d use a celeste, if that was in the studio. You could always find a place to put in a “bing bing” from the celeste. So I’d use anything that was around. At the time, that was about it.

MK The keyboard options were very slim.

MANZAREK Yes. The Fender Rhodes Electric piano was like, “Whoo God. Now you’re talking.” But synthesizers were just Moog, Buchia and a few others. Lots of huge modular systems.

MK It’s amazing, going back and listening, how evocative one could be—you could be—with a cheap combo organ. The scream of the butterfly.

MANZAREK The scream of the butterfly [from “When the Music’s Over”] is just an octave trill. That’s all. Put the volume pedal down and then ease the volume pedal in as you’re doing an octave trill. Es. It’s in the key of E. So it was an E to an E back and forth. Little finger and thumb.

MK Do you think it’s too easy today for people to get evocative sounds like that? You know, call up Preset Number 21: “Scream of Butterfly”?

MANZAREK No. it’s never easy. You can get the sounds, but you still have to play them. I think it’s just as difficult today as it was then. As it will always be. Making music is very difficult. To do it correctly is very difficult. And the fact that keyboard players have the option to sound like a trumpet, a violin, an organ, a piano, or to sound like something that’s never been heard before, is great. You have all those options. But you still have to do something musical with them. And even if it’s not music, you still have to do something interesting, exciting, something dynamic with those options. This is a fabulous time to be a keyboard player. What could be better, boy? A 14- or 15-year-old kid who has taken his piano lessons, got his chops together, and gets turned on to the world of synthesizers. I envy those guys. The future…

MK By the time The Golden Scarab came around in 1975, were you concerned with distancing yourself from the Doors as an artist?

MANZAREK No, I was never concerned about that. The Doors are a facet of my life in the same way that going to UCLA is a facet of my life, going to DePaul University. St. Rita High School in Chicago, Everet School. Those are all facets of my life and I wouldn’t want to distance myself from them. Time distances me from those event. I didn’t consciously try not to be…I play the way I play, with the Doors or without the Doors. I was just going to do other things on my own, without the Doors, for The Golden Scarab and The Whole Thing Started with Rock and Roll.

MK As a conclusion to our discussion of the Doors, how about a few rounds of the title game? What if I just throw a few song titles at you and we’ll see what comes up?

MANZAREK Go ahead.

MK “Touch Me.”

MANZAREK “Touch Me” is a Robby Krieger–penned song on which we put horns and strings. I’ve always been interested in Brazilian stuff, so I had them play a little Brazilian lick on it. I think from the moment we recorded that song, we knew it was going to be a hit single. We always felt it was a little syrupy. [affects crooner voice] “I’m gonna love you…” with the strings and everything. But we thought, Let’s go for it. Let’s just go all the way with it. Put the strings on there and the whole thing. And sure enough, just as we thought, it became a hit single.

And if you’ve ever seen the video of it, it’s hysterical. There’s a video on Dance on Fire, the Doors video compilation. We performed “Touch Me” on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour with the Smothers Brothers orchestra. Robbie Krieger has a black eye. It’s hysterical. You see these strange little men in their tuxe dos playing violins and horns. It’s very funny.

MK Jim forgets to sing the beginning of the second verse.

MANZAREK Yeah, it was just goofball city on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

MK “The Alabama Song.”

MANZAREK “The Alabama Song” is the reason we got signed to Elektra Records. The first night [Elektra chief] Jac Holzman came to see us, he didn’t care for the band that much. His wife and his son—Adam Holzman, who is now playing keyboards with Miles Davis— persuaded him to hear us again. Adam, who was eight to 10 years old at the time, and Nina said, “You’ve got to sign this band. This band is great.” So Jac came down the next night; and that night, we happened to play “The Alabama Song”—Brecht and Weil: The Whiskey bar. And he said, “Ahh, these boys are intelligent. My god, that’s a song from a German opera of the late Twenties [The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny]. Okay, I thought they were just trashy rock and roll, but I see that they are intelligent. So I’ll sign them.” Thank God he did too. And all because of that song. Because of Kurt Weil and Bertolt Brecht. So thanks, guys, wherever you are.

MK “Light My Fire.”

MANZAREK Well, Robby brought that song in. It was very much like the day Jim and I met on the beach and started the Doors. It was hot. We had a rehearsal room/ beach house where Dorothy [Ray’s wife] and I lived in a 30-foot glass living room apartment building. Fortunately, all the other people in the building worked—there were only four apartments—so we could practice during the day. Robbie came and said, “I got a song called ‘Light My Fire.’ ” He started to play it and John put a Latin beat behind the verse. And we went into a straight rock feel for the chorus. Then I started playing it and said, “We’ve got two choruses, two verses; now we need a solo. Let’s stretch out. This is very much like John Coltrane’s version of “My Favorite Things” in E minor? This is in A minor. Let’s just do four. Let’s just do a repeating pattern and play solos on top of it.” So I started to play it, Robby started to play. We said, “Yeah, yeah, we got it. This song is great.”

I said, “Wait a minute. One more thing: we’ve got to have an introduction. How are we gonna begin this song? Okay, everybody leave the room for 15 minutes and let me think about this. So everybody walked out the door that lead right onto the beach. When they walked back in the door I said, “Listen to this.” G, D…it was a cycle of fifths. Everyone said that’s it. That’s the introduction. Then we hit an A… Major then to minor. Then John comes in with the Latin beat.

And that was it. It came together in one day, on that afternoon in sunny, beautiful southern California. Whereas other songs took a long time. “The End” took a long time to come together. “Moonlight Drive” took a long time to evolve into the final version that was released. Some of those songs took six or eight months to develop, but others, like “Light My Fire,” came together instantly.

MK Was that change to 3/4 in the solo kind of Coltrane-inspired?

MANZAREK That was John’s idea. Right, because we were doing that Coltrane thing, John said, “Let’s go three against four in there.” That’s what was fun about playing with John. He knew about Coltrane and Miles and all that stuff. And Robby brought in a whole knowledge of flamenco guitar and country blues and Robert Johnson and all kinds of stuff like that. Morrison brought in the poetry and I brought in the classical, jazz and Chicago blues.

MK A final question. In your career so far, you’ve functioned as a band member, a solo artist doing his own material and as an interpreter of other material. You’ve been a producer and accompanist to various poets and other bands. Do you feel more comfortable with any of these roles than you do with any of the others?

MANZAREK They’re all different aspects of the same personality. It’s like having five fingers on each hand. I have 10 fingers. Each one performs a different function. But they’re all part of my hand. I love producing. I love playing. It’s all creativity. That’s the whole point of existence. The whole point of being alive on this planet is to be creative.